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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Marvelous Transaction

The coming of the Son of God into the world as a human child signifies not only the coming of God to be one of us, among us, but also begins God’s process of bring us back to be with God and like God.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, The Name of Jesus; texts: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

There was an article in the Star Tribune on Sunday that disturbed some of our members, who mentioned it to me after worship.  I hadn’t read it then, but I did when I got home.  It was about a nationally-known local pastor who was retiring, and who has a reputation for fiery preaching, for proclaiming God’s wrath on people in order to call them to confession of their sin.  Included in his preaching over the years has been his attributing of disasters, tragedies and attacks to God’s just wrath on those who suffered them.  For this pastor, this theology is rooted in understanding the sovereignty of God.   God is in charge, therefore all things are attributed to God’s will and plan, even such things some might classify as human evil or natural disaster.  This is in keeping with his theological tradition, and we certainly have heard that from others of that tradition.  Also central to his preaching has been his belief that, according to what he said to the interviewer, “if you try to throw away a wrathful God, nothing in Christianity makes sense.  The cross certainly doesn’t make sense anymore, where [Jesus] died for sinners.” [1]  In this, he’s in line with one of the theologies of the atonement the Church has sometimes held, that Jesus’ death appeases the just and righteous anger of the Father in our stead, substituting for our punishment.  Without Jesus, according to this theory, then the wrath of the Creator would pour out on us like flames of destruction.

C. S. Lewis reminds us that theories of the atonement aren’t necessary to receive the benefits of the work of Jesus in his death and resurrection, just as one doesn’t need to understand how food is good for us to be nourished by eating.  While this is true, how we understand God’s attitude toward us and the world is an important part of how we live our faith.  If we believe God’s attitude and reason for coming among us was love and a desire to bring us back through love, then we might also be open to the possibility of a relationship with God, that is, if God wants such a thing.  If we believe the coming of Jesus was to deflect from us the just wrath and anger of the Father, then we’ll love to be with Jesus, but God the Father might possibly remain a frightening presence to us, which raises all sorts of questions about faith in a Triune God, or at least loving a Triune God instead of one of the Three apart from another.  So while we don’t need to know how the Triune God effects our salvation through the life, death and resurrection of the Son as long as such salvation is accomplished, it might affect our lives as disciples profoundly to try and understand just what God was and is doing.

To that end, listen to this alternate understanding of the reasons for the coming of the Son of God among us, in this ancient antiphon sung by the Church on this day, the eighth day of Christmas, the day of Jesus’ circumcision and naming:

“O admirable exchange: the Creator of human-kind, taking on a living body, was worthy to be born of a virgin, and, coming forth as a human without seed, has given us his deity in abundance.”

O admirable exchange, or as the Latin would say, “admirabile commercium,” a marvelous transaction.  Here the understanding is that there is a deep mystery in the coming of Jesus which entails an exchange, a transaction: the Creator takes on human flesh, and in turn, gives us divine attributes, divinity itself.  Echoing Paul in Romans 3, who said that God’s righteousness becomes our own righteousness when God takes on our sinfulness, this is a view of God that is very different from a wrathful Father who is appeased by the Son’s death.  And on this feast day of Jesus’ naming, the Church chose to sing about this wonder, this mystery, that the coming of the Son was God’s loving attempt to restore us to what we were meant to be.  Eight days after Christmas, where we celebrated God’s coming among us as a human child, now we are reminded of the second half of the transaction, that we in turn are given deity, are made godly, by this coming.

Of course, beautiful or no, the question for us is, is this true?  Does the wrath of God have anything to do with us?

There’s no question that the Scriptures speak of God’s wrath and sovereignty.  Many times God is described as furious with our sinfulness and wandering.  You don’t have to look very hard in the Old Testament to find examples, going all the way back to the story of the flood.  God is described as hating human sin.

And likewise, God’s always making claims to be in charge, to be in control of the world.  As the Creator of all, the Scriptures attribute all things to God’s will and plan.  God punishes in Scripture, God forgives in Scripture.  But God does it.

Yet this only tells part of the Scriptural story.

It only tells half of God’s attitude toward the world and fallen humanity.  It misses the constant reminders of God’s love and grace toward us, even in our sin, as we see throughout the Old Testament, like when in Hosea God waxes greatly in anger and then ends with poignant love and forgiveness.  It misses the grief of God after the flood which leads to God’s new plan to lead a family into a relationship with God that will eventually bless the whole world.

And it only tells part of God’s sovereignty, missing the reality that God leaves us to choose our own sin or goodness and doesn’t always intervene.  Cain kills Abel, and that is not God’s will.  Human sin is so great, and not of God’s will, that the flood happens.  David has Uriah killed, against God’s will.  Talking about divine sovereignty is far more complicated than claiming all things, evil and good, to be part of God’s plan and will.  Sometimes, the Scriptures say, God limits God’s own sovereignty.

So the point would be finding an understanding of God’s view of us that encompasses all of what the Scriptures say about God and humanity.  That would require a great deal more time than we have for a sermon, so what if we just look at the readings assigned for today and see what we can see?

Today the message of Scripture speaks not of appeasing wrath, but of divine searching, divine loving, and divine inheritance.

Whatever we might say about God’s wrath over our sin, the psalmist this morning has a different view of God’s attitude.  The psalmist is filled with wonder that God loves us, even that God notices us at all.  Compared to the grandeur of creation, who are we?, we sang today.  Yet, the psalmist believes that in fact, we are so loved by God that we are lifted to the status of highest of the creation, higher even than the angels.  It causes us the same wonder and awe, but the first hint of God’s attitude toward us today is that somehow, against all odds, God loves and cares for us.

Paul takes us beyond awe into stunned silence, however, for Paul describes God’s action toward us as even more than exalting us to be above other creatures.  Paul says that we are in fact so loved by God we are adopted as children of God.  Paul addresses the wrath of God: we are under the law, we are under God’s judgement.

But for Paul, God’s answer is to send the Son, in the fullness of time, to redeem us by adopting us as children, not to appease God’s anger.  By joining us to the Triune God in such a way that we share the same relationship to the Father that the Son does.  So the attitude of the Father toward our sin is that it cannot stand, but the answer is not wrath which the Son needs to deflect.  The answer is sending the Son to work our salvation in order that we can be adopted as children of God.

Heirs of God, Paul says.  People who receive divinity as an inheritance, godliness from the Triune God, even as the Son receives humanity and sinfulness and brings it into God’s reality.  And now we begin to see the theology of the miraculous transaction, don’t we?

But let’s not forget the gift of our first reading, our blessing by God with a name.  When you adopt a child, you give it a name, and in Numbers that name is declared to be God’s name.

When we say, “The LORD bless you and keep you,” we are substituting, as do the Jewish people, the title “LORD” for the proper name of God as Israel knew it, Yahweh, thus avoiding even threatening to break the second commandment.  That is the name, however, God intends to be laid upon the people as a blessing.

But in Jesus we have revealed to us a deeper proper name of God, a name veiled in mystery because we cannot fully grasp it, but a name of life and hope for us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And even as the LORD, in giving a benediction to be used by Aaron and the priests, a benediction we use to this day, says that this benediction is the gift of the LORD’s name as blessing on the people, even so is this new name of God given us in blessing.

It should be no surprise that we receive it when, as Paul promised, we are adopted, for we receive it when we are baptized.  And in that baptism we are covered with the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and linked to the life and love of God in a profound way.

And we are entered into this commercial transaction God is doing, which is a wonder to us.

O admirable exchange, the Church has sung on this day.  Our joy is that it is not only a beautiful thought, but that it is also true.

It’s the only way to comprehend the full breadth of the message of the Scriptures about God’s answer to our sinfulness, about God’s reason for coming as a child among us, about God’s hopes for us as a result.

If it sounds familiar to some of you, it may be because Luther was deeply fond of this image and used the expression on several occasions.  Though it is true that at least once he understood the exchange to be a little more like the substitutionary model, that Jesus takes our punishment and we go free, in Luther’s theology the predominant way he understands this is the joyful reception of God’s righteousness that we receive in exchange for God taking on our sinfulness.

The beauty of this is that it also takes into account the Trinity as being one God, not Three individual actors who are not of one mind, one will.  This idea not only accounts for the love of the Son for us, it also accounts for the love of the Father, and the gift of the Spirit to make our adoption alive, real, to give us our inheritance fully.

And it becomes our joy this morning on the octave of Christmas, that we begin to have our eyes opened to the full truth of what God is about for us: coming to be with us as one of us that we might come to be like God, as children of God.

It is a wonder, a marvel, a miracle.  And it is the source of our joy now and always.

Now, in the fullness of time, this is our hope and our life.  May God continue to work our adoption in us, working in us that which is good and pleasing, giving us the godliness we need to look more and more like the children of God we are, more and more like this Son of God who began the transaction, who began God’s plan to bring life to us and to all the people of this world, so that God’s joy might be fulfilled.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] “Fiery pastor leaving the pulpit,” Star Tribune, 30 December 2012, section B, p. 4.

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